The length of a marriage
It’s basically a myth that the challenge of maintaining a happy marriage gets easier the longer one is married. Neither do we necessarily get wiser as we get older. All Bible students are familiar with the multiplicity of Solomon’s wives and concubines leading him spiritually astray in his old age,1 or the adultery committed by King David with Bathsheba.2 These were not the acts of young men, but rather those of elders who should have been mature God-fearing individuals. The actions of Solomon and David point out the vulnerability to the sin of infidelity even in old age. It is a startling fact that in recent years the divorce rate among older long-married couples has seen a phenomenal rate of increase. In a recent sociological study3 it was found that:
“The divorce rate among older adults has more than doubled since 1980, and 1in 4 persons who divorces today is over age 50.”
It is deplorable to see couples that have been married 20, 30, 40 years, or more getting divorced because of the proverbial “irreconcilable differences” even in our own community. Perhaps I am incredibly naïve, but it would seem to me somewhere along the line a God-fearing couple would have learned how to deal with conflict in their marriage and made their differences reconcilable. However, I have learned that this simply does not always happen when a long-term marriage fails; what one finds instead is that the differences and incompatibilities have been buried for many years while the couple was occupied elsewhere raising children, developing careers, and generally trying to muddle through. Then one day they, individually, or even simultaneously, discover that the nest is empty and the focus falls exclusively on each other. When this happens invariably one or the other, or both don’t like what they see. Unresolved issues that may have been obscured for years, even decades, come to the fore and having never learned to resolve conflict in a loving spiritual manner the marriage ends up in a divorce.
If the divorce is a result of infidelity, because for one reason or another they no longer find themselves in love with their original partner, and the partner(s) marry someone else, they often that this second attempt doesn’t guarantee happiness. In fact the data suggests quite the opposite: we discover that the divorce rate for second marriages is even higher than for first ones. Obviously, people with unresolved issues often carry them over to new relationships, because they have never addressed the real source of their unhappiness, which is themselves. Often divorce rather than bringing happiness results instead in severe financial difficulty for the couple involved. This is true for the woman especially if she has never developed any independent resources for earning a living or she has passed the age where any one would normally employ her. In the case of the man divorce in his declining years usually sees alimony wiping out pensions and/or 401K retirement plans in a way they never reckoned. With these observations in mind measures have been proposed to remedy the situation and to alleviate the economic and social pains associated with divorce. This concept has become known as a “contract marriage”.
Divorce has become so ubiquitous in certain parts of the world that recently in Mexico City a group of lawmakers were concerned with the reality that 50%, or more, of the marriages in that municipality ended in failure. They reasoned that legal complications could be avoided if instead of lifetime marriage licenses the government established renewable marriage contracts with terms as short as two years. These agreements would automatically expire unless periodically renewed, without resorting to attorneys or court proceedings. The financial aspects would all be worked out in advance and would be incorporated in the original two-year limited term contract. Thus far, on first attempt this measure failed to pass. However, others have picked up the gauntlet here in the United States suggesting that perhaps a twenty-year renewable term would be a more reasonable societal goal. The longer term would permit (they argue) the couple to raise children to a responsible age. Naturally, this presumes that the couple wants children in the first place and further that they have them almost immediately.4 Where this will end and how far these ideas may go I certainly cannot predict, but they emphasize the point that marriage is more and more regarded as a passing phase rather than a lifelong commitment. This model is in serious contradiction to the commandments of Christ.5
What causes someone to stray from commitment to a marriage that has lasted decades? We have seen this dramatically displayed in the tabloids when public figures are revealed as having betrayed their spouses for some newer, generally much younger, often more attractive companion. With males this phenomena is alluded to as finding the “trophy” wife (or mistress!). The female partner is not immune to seeking greener pastures rather than being forced to endure what they may perceive as a loveless marriage. An attractive, more successful, charming and apparently more attentive male at work may become the object of the unhappily married woman’s affections. The phenomena of abandoning a long-term marriage by being drawn away by newly directed passions might seem modern, but that is hardly the case. As Solomon has written there is nothing new under the sun.6 Consider the advice given in Proverbs:
“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov 5:18).7
The admonition to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” is given in the context of a warning not to be led astray by temptation: and remember what you saw in her “in your youth”
“Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?” (Prov 5:20).
The prophet Malachi expands on this warning:
“But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (Mal 2:14).
Here the context uses abandoning “the wife of your youth” as a metaphor for the people of Israel forsaking their covenant with the Lord God. Clearly the prophet, by the inspiration of the Lord God, regarded marriage as a sacred covenant between a man and a woman equivalent in seriousness to the covenant He made with Israel. The Lord God’s promises to Israel can never be broken,8 in spite of the sins of that nation that the prophets elaborated.
A lifelong commitment
The idea of marriage being a sacred lifelong covenant between a man and a woman is amplified in the New Testament which uses similes that picture Christ as the Bridegroom and the ecclesia as his bride (See Matt 9:15, Mark 2:19-20, Luke 5:34-35 for Jesus as bridegroom, 2Cor 11:2, Eph 5 for ecclesia as bride.)
“…for he (Christ) has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” Heb 13:5
These are magnificent words — in spite of all our sins our Lord and Master Jesus Christ offers us mercy and forgiveness. We will fail from time to time, but repentance and renewal are always possible. Only if we turn our backs and walk away from Jesus, then and only then are we lost. The author of Hebrews makes this clear when he said that breaking our covenant with Christ crucifies him once again and likens our fate to that of thorns and thistles that are consumed by fire.
“For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (Heb 6: 4-8).
This poses two rhetorical questions: Can we imagine our Lord Jesus Christ breaking his covenant with us? Secondly: Can we imagine breaking the covenant we made with our marriage partner that Scriptures insist should be ‘till death do us part’? A life-long commitment to marriage may be something the world has come to regard as impractical and indeed even foolish, but certainly there cannot be any doubt in the mind of a faithful believer that this has never been, and never will be the intent of the Lord God when he made man and woman. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8).
If we break a covenant with our marriage partner who we know up close and personal what makes us think we can stay faithful to God!
How do we avoid a marriage, as it were, getting stale with age? The first thing to recognize is that we need to be flexible. Being willing to modify comfortable old patterns in the light of new situations in a marriage is essential to keeping the relationship functioning happily. When I first retired eight years ago it took some adjustment for my wife to get comfortable with having me around the house, especially since I took a new part-time job that had unpredictable hours. She may have married me “for better or worse”, but not for lunch! In almost 45 years of marriage (at that time: 53+ years at this writing) she planned her day without needing to be concerned with what I was doing for lunch! This took some adjusting on the part of both of us, which pretty much has been solved — I think! Obviously, this situation is a minor example; much more weighty issues can arise as the years go by in a marriage including serious illness, intimacy problems, difficulties that one’s adult children may have, diminishing of income, taking care of one’s own aging parents, loss of a loved one and so on. At one point or other Mary and I have had to deal in some measure with all of these issues and several others that I omit for lack of space. What has sustained us time and again, when we felt battered by life’s challenges, were the words of our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples when they lacked sufficient faith to heal the epileptic boy.
“… if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed… nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20
With this in mind we found it helpful to pray together as the disciplines did: …Lord, increase our faith.9
To maintain a happy marriage — until death do us part — I suggest that reviewing the guidelines that have been provided throughout this series may be of assistance.
Resolve to be faithfully committed to each other,
as we know that our Lord Jesus Christ is faithful to us. (Cp. Eph 5:22-33)
between yourself and your partner by being absolutely honest. A happy marriage at any age cannot be built on a foundation of secrets and lies. (Eph 5:21)
Don’t worship ‘material things’
or they will become your stumbling block. Remember the advice of the Apostle Paul: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”10 (Phil 4:11).
Develop your communication skills.
Being able to discuss issues and really listen to your partner without disparaging them, or worse ignoring their concerns, is the first step in finding a solution to a disagreement. (James 1:19 and Eph 4:15)
Be willing to compromise.
Almost all disagreements are amenable to a solution when love dissolves away rigid positions. (Matt 5:25 and Luke 12:58)
Be willing to lose!
Just because you may be right doesn’t mean you have to win the argument. (Cp. Matt 5:39 and Luke 6:29)
Learn to “fight fair”.
Confine discussions to the issue at hand and avoid dragging up other extraneous foibles that happened in the past. (Acts 3:19 and see footnote11)
Learn to forgive.
We will never be perfect nor should we expect it in our marriage partner. If you truly love your spouse forgiveness will be essential to maintaining a happy relationship. (Cp. 1Cor 13:1-13 and Eph 4:32)
Be wise with your finances.
If you don’t know how to make long-range financial plans it is probably a good idea to seek advice from a professional. (Cp. Luke 14:28-30 and Prov 24:30-34)
Don’t use intimacy as a way of controlling your relationship
. (Cp. 1Cor. 7:2-5)
Resolve to make decisions jointly
so that issues don’t lead to power struggles. Remember, as husband and wife you are on the same team – don’t pull in opposite directions! (1Pet 3:7)
Control your anger.
Arguments that lead to insults, verbal or physical abuse should not be tolerated. Surprisingly long-married couples are not immune to such behavior. Sometimes it is a reversion to habits never resolved earlier in the marriage and in other cases it develops anew from frustrations that come from trying to adjust to new problems that come with age. (Cp. Prov. 15:1 and Gal 5:20,23)
Don’t let problems linger.
The longer an issue remains unresolved usually the higher the barrier becomes to reach accommodation. The Apostle Paul’s sanguine advice should be kept in mind: “…do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26 ).
“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (Eccl 9:9).
John C. Bilello (Ann Arbor, MI)
1. 1Kgs 11:3,4. Whether or not Solomon was personally happy in his old age we cannot say, but certainly his wives made his marriages decidedly unhappy in a spiritual sense.
2. 2Sam 11.
3. Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, Study on: “Divorce in Middle and Later Life: New Estimates from the 2009 American Community Survey”, Department of Sociology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio
4. For more details on the renewable contract proposal see Reuters, News release, dated September 29, 2011, Mexico City.
5. Matt 5:31-32 and 19:7-10; Mark 10:4-9.
6. Abstracted from Eccl 1:9 .
7. All references are from the ESV.
8. See Jer 31:35-36; 33:17-21.
9. Luke 17:5.
10. Abstracted from Phil 4:11 (See also 1Tim. 6:6-8).
11. The passage indicates that God will not only forgive sins but that he will forget them (blot them out) — we should do the same.